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Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Recently I participated in a panel put on by RART (Readers’ Advisory Round Table,) called RE & RA: Racial Equity and Readers’ Advisory. These are the books I talked about. Astute readers might notice that a few of them are slightly modified versions of reviews I’ve previously published here, while others are new.

One Crazy SummerRita Williams-Garcia: One Crazy Summer

The Gaither sisters, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, live with their father and grandmother in Brooklyn, and have ever since their mother walked out shortly after Fern was born. Suddenly, Cecile takes an interest in her children, and the girls spend the summer of 1968 with their mother in Oakland, California. Instead of trips to Disney Land and the beach, however, they spend every day at a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. While the girls initially balk at this, they come to cherish their one crazy summer.

PS Be ElevenRita Williams-Garcia: PS Be Eleven

The following school year has more changes afoot for the girls. Their Uncle Darnell returns from the war in Vietnam a completely different man than when he left; their father is dating; their grandmother refuses to let them dress like all of their friends; and the Jackson Five are coming to Madison Square Garden. Sometimes it’s hard for Delphine to remember to just be eleven.

Gone Crazy in AlabamaRita Williams-Garcia: Gone Crazy in Alabama

The summer of 1969 sees the Gaither sisters off to Alabama to visit their grandmother and her family. The girls learn about their own complicated family history, and get up to a surprising amount of mischief. But when tragedy strikes, the girls learn that some bonds run deeper than expected, and family will always be there for family, even if they have gone crazy in Alabama.

Inside Out and Back AgainThanhhà Li: Inside Out & Back Again

Hà and her family live in Saigon. But because her father is a soldier for the South Vietnamese army, and has been missing in action for nine years, when Saigon falls, Hà and her mother and brothers are forced to flee. They end up in Alabama, sponsored by a local family. Each member of the family finds life in America difficult to adjust to, each for individual reasons. This novel in verse is inspired by the author’s experiences as a child.

Listen SlowlyThanhhà Li: Listen Slowly

Mai lives with her parents in California, a thoroughly modern girl. But instead of having the summer on the beach with her friends that she dreamed of, Mai is forced to go to Vietnam with her father and grandmother, to search for her grandfather who disappeared during THE WAR. Mai’s parents seem to think that this trip will help their daughter get in touch with her roots, while Mai knows it is just going to be a colossal waste of time. But as she learns to listen, slowly, Mai discovers a lot about herself, her family, and her past. And comes to realize that perhaps her grandmother’s quest isn’t such a waste after all.

Great Greene HeistVarian Johnson: The Great Greene Heist

Jackson Greene has turned over a new leaf, but no one will believe him. While he may be famous for the Shakedown at Shimmering Hills, the Blitz at the Fitz, and the unfortunate Mid-Day PDA, he’s gone straight. No more cons, no more schemes, nothing. It may be tough (and boring) toeing the line, but Jackson is determined to do it. But when notorious bully Keith Sinclair announces that he’s running for school president against Jackson’s former best friend Gaby de la Cruz, Jackson knows he has to do something. Because there is simply no way that Keith will run a clean campaign. So Jackson assembles a crack team to run the biggest con of his life: THE GREAT GREENE HEIST.

The CrossoverKwame Alexander: The Crossover

Josh and Jordan Bell are twins, almost thirteen. They are both on their school’s basketball team, and together they are the two best players on the team. But while they may seem to be interchangeable, they are not. Josh is intensely focused on basketball and school, while Jordan is starting to notice other things–namely, girls. And this drives a wedge between the two formerly inseparable brothers. But sometimes life intervenes in unexpected ways, and then you learn what really matters.

Under A Painted SkyStacey Lee: Under A Painted Sky

Seventeen-year-old Chinese-American Samantha is on the run from the law after killing a man who tried to rape her, but she manages to escape with the help of Annemarie, a slave. Determined to head west and start a new life, the girls quickly realize that they will attract far too much attention on the Oregon Trail, and disguise themselves as boys. “Sammy” and “Andy” fall in with a group of young cowboys who take the two youngsters under their wing—but how long can the deception be maintained, and at what cost?

FlygirlSherri L. Smith: Flygirl

Ida Mae Jones wants to get her pilot license now that she has finished high school, but because she is a girl it is proving difficult; because she is African-American it is proving impossible. After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, the US Air Force begins the Women Air Force Service Pilots program (WASP) to free up men for combat. Ida Mae is light-skinned enough to pass as white and enroll in the WASP, but her joy at finally being able to do what she loves battles with her shame and anger at having to hide who she is.

PointeBrandy Colbert: Pointe

Theo is well on her way to becoming a professional ballerina; school and friends and her health are all going as well as can be expected, when suddenly the unthinkable happens: Theo’s best friend Donovan suddenly reappears after being abducted four years earlier. Now Theo has to decide whether or not to reveal her unwitting role in Donovan’s disappearance—which could very well risk everything she has worked for her entire life. But sometimes doing what is right is more important than doing what is easy, and Theo struggles with what choice to make.

Gabi A Girl in PiecesIsabel Quintero: Gabi, A Girl in Pieces

Gabi Hernandez is about to start her senior year of high school, and uses her diary to record her thoughts about everything going on in her life. And there is a lot going on. In addition to all of the normal school things (grades, boys, college applications, and so on), Gabi is also dealing with one of her best friends coming out as gay, her father’s addition to meth, and more than one unexpected pregnancy in her circle of friends. Despite all of the trappings of what could be considered a “problem novel,” this is a true-to-life portrait of a modern teenager, and a joy to read.

A Bollywood AffairSonali Dev: A Bollywood Affair

Married as a child bride and then whisked away to live in her husband’s haweli with only her grandmother for company, Mili Rathod has done everything she can to make herself into a model modern wife—all in the hopes that someday her husband will come claim her as his own. When Mili is offered the chance to go to the US for graduate school, she takes it. Unbeknownst to Mili, her husband wants to dissolve the marriage, and sends his brother Samir to Michigan to track Mili down and make her sign the necessary documents. But much to Samir’s surprise, the woman he encounters is neither a simple village naïf nor a cunning gold-digger, and he soon becomes caught up in Mili’s life. Will everyone be able to secure a happy ending?

Claire of the Sea LightEdwidge Danticat: Claire of the Sea Light

The book opens with Claire running away on the evening of her seventh birthday. As her distraught father searches for her, we travel back in time to examine the lives of several residents of Ville Rose in Haiti. Only as the story slowly progresses do we understand how the seemingly unconnected people and events come together to bring us back to the starting point; some connections are obvious, while some have to be teased out slowly. The book closes where we began, with Claire running away. Nothing was resolved, nothing even really happened, but the story was told in such gorgeous and luminous language that it’s clear that the journey itself was the most important thing that we experienced.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoJunot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Oscar Wao is a fat ghetto nerd who can’t get laid. His older sister Lola rebels at every turn. Their mother Beli had to flee the Dominican Republic after a disastrous love affair when she was only 16. Their grandfather ran afoul of Trujillo and ended up in a prison camp. The family is cursed by a powerful fukú that follows them from generation to generation, ruining lives completely and utterly. But despite this they persevere. For a while it looks like Oscar and Lola have broken free of the curse, even though their lives are difficult and complicated and messy. When the fukú finally strikes, it does so with terrible consequences. There is a lot that happens in this book, it’s fast-paced, brutal, and graphic both in terms of language and violence, yet it also has passages of great beauty.

The Good Lord BirdJames McBride: The Good Lord Bird

A funny book about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an event credited as being an impetus to the American Civil War? Well, yes, actually. Very funny, until you realize that there are also quite a few uncomfortable and ugly truths being exposed by the humor. Henry Shackleford may only be 12 (or possibly 14), and mistaken for a girl at that, but he observes with a sharp eye, and has an even sharper voice. It’s a tragedy told as low comedy–you know that it’s going to end badly for pretty much everyone involved, but you have to go on the journey with them because it’s such a good ride to get there.

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This is a picture book biography aimed at young readers. It has incredibly vibrant art, filled with color and movement, which draws readers unfamiliar with Josephine Baker fully into her story. What I particularly like about this book is that it does a wonderful job of capturing the wit and energy associated with Josephine, both as an individual and as a performer, but it in no way glosses over the difficulties she faced throughout her life, both personally and professionally. It would have been very easy for this to have been just a celebration of her accomplishments, without addressing any of her shortcomings. Another wonderful inclusion is a list of titles for further reading; even if the titles are more advanced than this book, having them listed (as full and complete citations, no less, not simply title and author!) is really a nice touch that shows the scholarship that went into this book–there is also a source cited for every quotation used–but is also an incredible resource for anyone who wants to know more about Josephine after reading this book. There’s so much work that went into this relatively short book, that it’s clear that the subject is something of a passion for both the author and the illustrator. Highly recommended.

Josephine The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Source: borrowed from library

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Oscar Wao is a fat ghetto nerd who can’t get laid. His older sister Lola rebels at every turn. Their mother Beli had to flee the Dominican Republic after a disastrous love affair when she was only 16. Their grandfather ran afoul of Trujillo and ended up in a prison camp. The family is cursed by a powerful fukú that follows them from generation to generation, ruining lives completely and utterly. But despite this they persevere. For a while it looks like Oscar and Lola have broken free of the curse, even though their lives are difficult and complicated and messy. When the fukú finally strikes, it does so with terrible consequences.

There is a lot that happens in this book, it’s fast-paced, brutal, and graphic both in terms of language and violence. Yet it also has passages of great beauty. My only complaint about the book is that the ending is very abrupt. Yunior, who is the main narrator for Diaz’s short fiction (which I own but have not yet read), also narrates Oscar Wao. I really can’t recommended this one highly enough, despite the flawed ending; the narrative voice is profane and irritating and compassionate and completely believable, just like a real person, and Oscar himself is an amazing character. Everyone probably knows an Oscar, or perhaps even is an Oscar, but hopefully not everyone’s story will end the way his does. Fully deserving of its Pulitzer win.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Source: borrowed from library, but I have since bought my own copy

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The full titles of this book is Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. While that might be a slight exaggeration, there is no doubt that Cixi did indeed steer China towards the path of modernization, despite many setbacks and obstacles. It is very long, and the tone is quite scholarly–I was a bit put off at first, but quickly settled in to the rhythm of it; but honestly, the subject is not one that lends itself to a chatty biography. Author Jung Chang makes use of Chinese sources unavailable to previous biographers of Cixi, and she is able to paint a much more equitable and fair portrait of a ruler long considered to be tyrannical, evil, and willfully shortsighted. Of course Cixi still made missteps, and did less than stellar things, as she was only human, but this book gives her a much-needed image overhaul. I have borrowed two volumes by Princess Der Ling, a lady-in-waiting to Cixi, who wrote about her time at the court, in order to see what a contemporary said about her.

I’d recommend this book if you’re at all interested in Chinese history, or women’s history, or if you have heard of Cixi before, in whatever context. Part of my own interest in this book was because I had seen a fascinating exhibit in DC in 2011 that was focused on Cixi. It featured many of the hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of Cixi that the Freer-Sackler has in their collection. It also had a really interesting movie loop (I think it was about 20 minutes?) that showed various portrayals of Cixi throughout the years, in both Western and Asian cinema. She also makes appearances in other works of literature, such as Boxers & Saints, Empress Orchid, and The Last Empress

Empress Dowager Cixi

Source: borrowed from library

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Mortal Fire

Canny Mochrie has been packed off with her stepbrother Sholto and his girlfriend Susan for the summer, as Canny’s mother and stepfather are going on vacation, and Canny isn’t trusted to be left alone–much to her annoyance. Sholto and Susan are planning on spending the summer interviewing survivors of a coal mine disaster in Southland, as well as conducting folklore research. The disaster happened thirty years earlier, but strange echos and repercussions are still felt in the community. Sholto and Susan are fully occupied with their tasks, leaving Canny somewhat at loose ends, so she begins exploring the valley they are staying in. She finds a house seemingly outside of time, occupied by a strange (and handsome!) young man. Will Ghislain Zarene be able to answer the questions that no one else can, including who Canny’s father is? Or will Canny become trapped in the magic that binds the valley and the house inside it?

Mortal Fire takes places in a sort of alternate New Zealand in 1959; there are extremely important flashbacks to alternate WWII. Canny’s mother is the equivalent of Maori, and Canny is mixed race, but she does not know who her father is, as her mother has hardly ever spoken of him. This is important! Politics and race relations and iron lungs and identity and magic and bees and so much plot. It’s an amazing book, and it is apparently set in the same world as Knox’s Dreamhunter duology, which I have not read, although those apparently take place in a different era, and focus on a different aspect of magic. But I know I need to read them.

This book sneaks up on you: you think it’s going to be one thing, and then it makes a CRAZY LEFT TURN halfway through and becomes something completely different. Sort of the way Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones does, once the fae get involved. So I guess if you like that (and it’s one of my very favorite books) you’ll probably like this one, but it’s also *completely* different from Fire and Hemlock. They just vaguely of have the same feel to them, in the way that threatening magic encroaches into our world.

Mortal Fire

Source: borrowed from library, but I have since bought my own copy

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This was a really fascinating book. It is the biography, more or less, of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves in Mississippi. His family became relative wealthy landowners in their community, but after his father was murdered and justice was outright denied the family (they lost everything in pursuing it), Thomas left the South. Like many before him, he first moved to the North, settling in Chicago and later Brooklyn, but he still found that the color of his skin determined  his place in society. He moved on to London, France, and travelled across Europe, before finally settling in Moscow. There he found no color barrier, and became a wealthy man, an owner of several theaters and restaurants. Though his fortunes occasionally fluctuated, his life was generally quite good–until the Bolsheviks seized power. Thomas barely escaped Russia, and eventually ended up in Constantinople, where once again he managed to make a fortune as a nightclub owner. There, however, his luck finally ran out, and he ended up in debtor’s prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928, a broken man.

Just the idea that someone would willingly move to Russia in the late 1800s should tell you how bad it was for black men and women in the South (and the North, let’s not fool ourselves) at that time. Yes, Thomas did face challenges in Moscow. For starters, he had to learn the language–with many of his clients he could converse in French, which he had learned previously, but for day-to-day matters, he had to learn Russian. And then there was the matter of the Russian bureaucracy, and the system of bribes, and the general difficulties of being such an obvious Other in a relatively insular society. But Thomas persevered, and was successful. Amazingly, fabulously successful. If the Bolsheviks had not seized power, causing his world to collapse, it is unlikely he would have ever left; he did try very hard to stay, and only left when it because intolerable and dangerous to remain.

In short, this is a completely different portrait of a Reconstruction-era black man, and would be fascinating to read concurrently with The Warmth of Other Suns, even if that book covers a slightly later period (1915-1970). Highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Black Russian

Source: borrowed from library

 

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The Crossover

Josh and Jordan Bell are twins, almost thirteen. They are both on their schools basketball team, and together they are the two best players on the team. But while they may seem to be interchangeable, they are not. Josh is intensely focused on basketball and school, while Jordan is starting to notice other things–namely, girls. And this drives a wedge between the two formerly inseparable brothers. But sometimes life intervenes in unexpected ways, and then you learn what really matters.

This book was amazing. AMAZING. It’s a novel in verse, which I don’t usually seek out or tend to enjoy when I do encounter, but it was absolutely the right medium for this story. Here’s an example, from fairly early on (Josh is nicknamed Filthy by his dad):

The Show

 

quick shoulder SHAKE,

slick eye FAKE–

Number 28 is               way past late.

He’s reading me like a

BOOK

but I TURN THE PAGE

and watch him look,

which can only mean I got him

SHOOK.

His feet are the bank

and I’m the crook.

Breaking, BREAKING,

taking him to the left–

now he’s TOOK.

Number 14 joins in . . .

Now he’s on the

H
O
O
K

I got TWO in my kitchen

and I’m fixing to COOK.

Preppin’ my meal, ready for glass . . .

Nobody’s expecting Filthy to p a s s

I see Vondie under the hoop

So I serve him up my

Alley-OOP.

 

It just flows in an amazing way that really captures how a basketball game flows–there’s no way that straight prose could have done this. And the whole book is filled with moments like this, that speak to Kwame Alexander’s strengths as both a novelist and as a poet. And I suspect that that is my problem with novels in verse: they are written by novelists who want to try something different (so the poetry doesn’t sing), or they are written by poets who aren’t novelists (so the poetry is good, but the story has no life).

This is another book that teeters on the edge of YA. The boys are almost thirteen at the start of the story, very clearly in middle school, but again I think that readers who are both older or younger than Josh and Jordan would enjoy this book. Their parents are present in their lives, in a real and believable way. The boys struggle to redefine their relationship as they drift apart as their interests no longer mirror each other, and that will speak to readers. I really can’t recommend this one enough.

The Crossover

Source: borrowed from library

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